A few things have changed in the year since Justin Gallegos , making him the first professional athlete with cerebral palsy (CP) on the company’s roster.
The of Nike presenting him with a surprise contract racked up hundreds of thousands of views and earned him coverage in every media outlet from Good Morning America to Sports Illustrated.
The University of Oregon senior, 21, ran his second half marathon in Eugene in , improving his personal best and meeting his goal of breaking two hours.
The feat earned him kudos from another accomplished athlete, Eliud Kipchoge. The marathon world record holder now regularly comments on Gallegos’s social media posts. He can also be seen sporting one of Gallegos’s bright-green CP awareness bracelets—inscribed with his Instagram handle @zoommagic and #StrongerEveryMile—in his own .
But as Gallegos prepares to make his marathon debut in Chicago, a few constants anchor him.
One is Gallegos’s father Brent, who’s been running with him since he joined the cross-country team his freshman year of high school, will remain at his side during the race. (It’s also the first marathon for the elder Gallegos, a former sprinter and pole vaulter.)
Metallica still ranks as one of Justin’s favorite bands. He’s turned to their tunes—and episodes of his favorite podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience—for a mental boost through long, lonely miles.
He’s also stayed true to his mission, which aligns with Kipchoge’s: “To prove and show we can all be limitless,” Justin told Runner’s World. “The only limit we have is our mind.”
Falling Down—and Getting Up Again
Cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder, affects Justin’s gait and speech. When he expressed a desire to play football in high school, his father convinced him that cross country might pose less risk. So they reached out to the coach, and Brent joined his son for about 90 percent of his training.
“That’s how it started,” Brent said. “How he finished his high school running is, the state opens up a Paralympic division for the first year ever. And he runs and competes at the state championship and becomes a state champion at the 400 meters.”
When Justin first started running, his feet turned inward and dragged, causing him to fall frequently. With time—through high school, and as he graduated and joined the University of Oregon Club Running Club—the sport improved his strength and coordination. He still takes the occasional tumble, including, to his frustration, on mile 13 of a 20-mile long run this summer.
“When I fall, it’s about getting my body reset. You know, it’s a setback. But I just keep pushing forward,” he said. In this case, he and Brent were close enough to the family’s Santa Clarita, California, home to head there and clean up. He was back running again two days later.
His pace has also improved significantly, from an average of 11- or 12-minute miles to closer to 9-minute miles. In fact, his biggest problem lately has been starting out too fast. “I’ll look at my Garmin and say, we’re not gonna make it for the entire run, trying to get him to slow down,” Brent said.
Gallegos had served as an ambassador for Nike for two years—and worked with them on developing the FlyEase shoes, with zippers to make them easier to put on and take off—before the company presented him with the contract. Though the moment came as a surprise to him, his parents had reviewed the deal beforehand, Brent said.
Watch: Gallegos is surprised with a contract from Nike.
Precise details of the three-year deal remain confidential, but both father and son said they’ve felt fairly treated and supported.
The resulting publicity—though at times overwhelming, as Brent admitted—has opened doors for Gallegos. Last month, he traveled to New York to promote an event called STEPtember, which raised money for the . A few weeks later, he went to Memphis to speak to employees at FedEx.
On that New York trip, Brent had a revelation. He and his son both wore step counters, and even on days when they did all the same things, including running in Central Park, Justin’s step count would wind up at 20,000 when Brent’s was just 15,000.
“I’ve always kind of known it was a little harder for him,” Brent said. Now, he had a way to quantify the excess effort. “When we go run a marathon, the same number of strides that it’s going to take me, it’s going to take him at least 25 percent more.”
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That idea—that Gallegos pursues big goals despite inherent obstacles—may explain why his story resonates with so many. Though some with disabilities chafe at the word “inspirational,” Gallegos said it resonates with him, at least as he defines it.
“Where people miss the mark is, just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you’re an inspiration. I think it’s how you treat your disability,” he said.
With a condition like cerebral palsy, “certain areas of your life are a little more challenging,” he said. “But no matter your level of severeness, you shouldn’t let it stop you from going out and doing things.”
He knows that, unlike other pro runners, he will likely never race in a Diamond League meet or even compete at the Paralympics (his times on the track aren’t up to the standards for his classification).
“I’m okay with that,” he said, now that he’s turned his focus largely from the track to the marathon—and beyond. He’s already registered for his first ultramarathon, a 50K in Eugene in December.
In the Footsteps of His Mentor
Gallegos first set his sights on the full marathon immediately after the half in Eugene. With his Nike connections, Chicago was the natural choice. He’s excited to take on the “world-famous” course.
“It’s a humbling experience to represent Nike and the cerebral palsy community on this enormous stage,” he said.
With the exception of a bout of the flu last month and the few falls, his training has gone well. He and Brent have both been following a plan devised from pieces of a Runner’s World online plan and one from Nike. Nike sports scientist Brett Kirby, who ran the Eugene Half Marathon with the two, also offered his input.
On average, Justin ran 45 to 50 miles a week, with a long run, a workout of tempo miles or shorter intervals, and a medium-long run, with days of easy running in between. He logged many of his miles on the trails near Eugene, wearing a trail vest to tote his nutrition—he prefers Clif Bloks, while Brent likes gels—and hydration.
During the few weeks he spent at home in California, and on joint trips to New York and Flagstaff, he and Brent ran together. In between, they shared Excel spreadsheets and called each other at least every other day to recap their progress.
On race day, Brent’s biggest concern is protecting his son from tripping in a field crowded with more than 40,000 athletes. “If he tangles his foot with somebody, he’s going to go down,” Brent said. “You and I might be able to quick-step it and catch ourselves, but that’s not going to work for him.”
Fortunately, race organizers will allow them to start in the back of the sub-elite pack. Brent’s hope is that they can stick to the side, allowing faster runners from later waves plenty of room to pass.
The pair, plus another pacer they’ll meet in Chicago, plan to travel at about a 9-minute pace—that is, if Brent can hold his son back—for a four-hour finish, though Gallegos said he’s focused most on finishing strong, physically and mentally.
That the Chicago Marathon comes the day after Kipchoge will once again to break two hours in the marathon strikes Gallegos as extra sweet. The two have never met—but if and when they do, Gallegos imagines it will seem more like a reunion. “It feels like he’s been in my circle and he’s been one of my supporters,” he said.
Though he might not be able to stay up to observe the attempt, it still serves to inspire and motivate him. “I hope I can go out there and make him proud as well,” he said.
Contributing Writer Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013.